Three Crucial Things You Must Know Before Challenging An Atheist’s Unbelief

I propose that there are three categories of atheists:

  1. Natural Atheists: Those brought up by atheist parents who never experienced the conflict between religion and rationality.
  2. Apathetic Atheists: Those whose faith was not particularly strong and who, without a compelling drive to believe or not believe, defaulted to atheism – becoming an atheist involved very little internal debate and conflict.
  3. Dissonant Atheists: Those who grew up with belief but who were overwhelmingly torn up over the incompatibility between faith and rationality. These people sought one thing – to rid themselves of the terrible cognitive dissonance cat #1 and #2 atheists are spared from.

I’m here to talk about category #3 atheists because, well, I fall in that grouping.

Three Things You Must Know About Category #3 Atheists

  1. We Sometimes Wish Were Wrong (Even Though We Know We Are Not): I think one of the biggest mistakes theists make is to assume an atheist’s decision to ditch god was arrived at without deeply studying the issue. They honestly believe that all they have to do is raise a little awareness and, viola, they will have an easy conversion. This is not the case for cat #3 atheists. For us, becoming an atheist was the biggest decision of our lives. After all, becoming an atheist, not only means (for 99.9999% of us) getting rid of god, it also means abandoning the idea of immortality (ourselves and our loved ones) and that makes it a very, very big decision. Many of us go through a very real grieving process over all of this. With all this on the line, do you really think we’d only put a half-assed effort into our decision?
  2. We’ve Heard It All Before: I’m amazed how often – in my short, six months as an atheist – I’ve been challenged by someone who thinks they have the ultimate argument for religion. Trust me, you have nothing new to offer us on this discussion. Why am I so cocky (clue: see #1 above)? We’ve heard all your objections and questions before – probably many times before. Where have we heard them? We heard them inside our own heads during our de-conversion process. We’ve run the scenarios and questions many, many times – over and over – in our minds and, eventually, logic won out over these objections and we accepted reality. Most cat #3 atheists will have read multiple books on both sides of the argument, spend hundreds of hours on the web, and viewed countless Youtube debates (frankly, once you’ve seen Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris demolish the likes of Dinesh D’Souza a few times, our own debates seem …rather lame). What you need to know is that by the time you come into the picture, your objections are not at all new to us.
  3. You are Projecting: What we’ve come to realize about your questions and objections (e.g. “What’s the purpose of life without God?” and “Why be moral?”) is that you’re projecting your thoughts, insecurities and fears onto us. Sure, we can answer your questions but, we know in doing so that our worldview troubles you, and that you ask those questions to help you imagine what it might be like to be an atheist. My advice is to keep on asking these good questions, but to also make sure you ask them of yourself. I think you’ll find that you can imagine there’s no heaven. You may even find that it’s easy if you try.

To be blunt, what all this means is that you have very little hope of converting a cat #3 atheist to your religion (you probably won’t have much luck with a cat #1 either). Seriously, your best chance probably lies in converting cat #2 atheists so you might want to start by asking a few questions before wasting time on the wrong category.

Now you have a better understanding of us. You also have a more specific target conversion market.

You’re welcome.


  1. Ed,

    First, the Gospel can be proven.  Jesus said in Jn 7.16-17:  “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.  Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

    I have said that the Bible is unproven and you respond by telling me to read and believe in the Bible and it will be proven to me? That’s not evidence, Ed – that’s faith. I do not base my life on faith of things that have no evidence

    …you’d like to satisfy that annoying intermittent cry of your heart for a relationship with a Heavenly Father (which I applaud your transparency for sharing)…

    Where did I say that? All I said was that we sometimes wish we were wrong about our mortality. I have no desire for the relationship you speak of. I am a grown man who is very happy with the relationships I have with real-live human beings.

    We’re a universe apart, Ed.

  2. Ed — you do realize that many of us were Christians before, right?  You’re not exactly sharing anything new.

  3. Hey Mark,

    It’s paradoxical, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that the bible is testable.  And if / when it passes your test, the resultant confidence or faith becomes your evidence.

    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  He 11.1

    Let me clarify my other comment.  I was referring to when you said, “I found myself reacquainted with that frightened little voice in my head that yearned for a sort of parental comfort and protection from the perceived demons of the world.”  I had the exact same feeling when my son was diagnosed with Graves.  The natural instinctive response is to utilize every conceivable resource for the treatment of your son.

    I believe that is a universal response when any of us encounters life’s difficulties.  He’s proven Himself to me, when I was 8 years old and my Dad left us and today, 40 years later, running a business, challenged by the local economy in Detroit.

    Yes we’re a universe apart.  But that might not be as far as you think.  “He measured Heaven with the width of His Hand” Is 40.12  In other words, God managing the universe is like you or I packing a snowball.

    Here’s a link to Canadian astrophysicist Dr Hugh Ross explaining the scientific approach he used to evaluate the credibility of the various world religions and his discovery of the scientific method outlined in Genesis 1(from about the 2:00 minute mark of the video clip to about 9:00.)


  4. Postsimian,
    If you don’t mind me asking, what was it about your Christian experience that turned you off?

  5. Ed,

    I’m very familiar with Lee Strobel. He is extremely under-whelming. I’d write more but this link will do a much better job explaining what I think of him.

  6. Mark,

    I had never heard of Strobel until I Googled seeking a link to the Ross video.  It sounds like he promotes more hype than substance.  I happen to like Ross’s use of probability calculations determing the likelihood of dozens of specific life-sustaining characteristics of the universe randomly ocurring.

    I thought Kush K brought up some valid questions.  I’m going to think about them for a couple of days and try to offer a credible response.

    Have to take care of the day to day stuff as well.


  7. Wow. This is video is worse than Strobel’s stuff.

  8. Ed:  It’s important to note that what turned me off to Christianity actually had nothing to do with Christians.  I traded in my faith for evidence and abandoned the mystical for reason.  Evidence to the contrary is what ultimately turned me off. 

    If you’re talking about my experience as a Christian, well, I tried really hard to believe, tried really hard to do “be more Christ-like” and tried super-duper hard to bond with other Christians.  What I discovered was that no matter how much I wanted to believe, to many things were inconsistent and, let’s be honest, you can’t force yourself to believe something you don’t believe in.  I tried being more Christ-like only to be out-Jesused by holier-than-thou Christians.  Apparently raising your hands while singing and babbling nonsense talk makes one holier.  It was really a non-stop pissing contest.  Finally, no matter how hard I tried to identify with other Christians, despite my doubts, the hypocrisy of acknowledging a belief in Jesus coupled with a blatant disregard for his teachings gave me an associative distaste for other believers.

  9. Mark,

    Yes that one seems to be a folksy, watered-down-for-lay people “personal testimony”.  I’ll see if I can find a short clip of a more technical discussion.

  10. Postsimian,
    I hear ya, well put.  And I truly admire your efforts.

    You raise legitimate issues.  Rather than make a couple of “off the cuff” comments, I need a couple of days to consider the dynamics of your experience.  Your points are valid and obviously not uncommon.
    I’ll try to offer a meaningful response.  Obviously, if the answers were easy, this web site probably wouldn’t exist.

    I’ve got a son coming home from his university today so it will probably be early next week.


  11. (I just noticed I hit you with a “double-obviously”.  As a hockey fan, I’ve often chuckled during player interviews at the ability of some players to work 4 or 5 into a 4 or 5 sentence response.)

  12. Mark,

    By the way, nice web site.  While we disagree on just about everything, I’ve got to say it’s really well organized.

  13. Hi Ed,
    I get busy and haven’t been back, but I see your question. Truly, if I felt I’d connected with GOD, I’d still be a believer. What I felt connected with were the sweet people who wanted human connection, and to have a sense of there being a reason for things. It was they who touched me, or ticked me off, just like people do in every day life.  God was this strange being I had to talk about and believe in in order to be with my fellows.  I like the people. We’re far from perfect, but I like my journey, stresses, letdowns and all.  It all just makes more sense not trying to imagine that there’s this odd invisible being with mean crazy rules delivered in quaint ways (burning bushes??? ) that everyone argues about. 

    But I understand people who’ve had a horrible life, and don’t stand to see improvement must get substantial comfort from the idea that happiness will come some day.  I honor their craving for a hope of comfort and happiness, and I wish I had more power and ability to share my luck in this life. I have tried and will not stop trying. Well, time to clean, do my budget, so I can see what is left to share with my selected charities. And to write some letters to loved ones I know. :-)

  14. The one that irritates me the most is Pascal’s wager.

  15. Chalmer, it bugs the heck out of me, too.  

  16. I am certainly a cat3. I walked away from faith about 2 1/2 years ago. The biggest issue I have struggled with since my de-conversion is mortality, but I am working on it. It is comforting to stumble across blogs like your and know that there are others fighting with the same issues . It helps make for a very happy heathen. :)

  17. First of all, thank you for writing this article. I am a firm believer in God but have friends who are athiests and am generally intereted in knowing the mindset of a person who doesn’t believe in God, you know, what brought them to it and why. I specifically think the three categories were interesting cuz frankly speaking from the view point of others, i had only heard that athiests were non-believers of only one sort, but of course i didn’t believe that. Now, just to set one thing straight, speaking for myself as a believer, not all believers are stupid enough to stereotype athiests, like i said i have a really intelligent, rational friend and this person is an athiest of Cat #3. It would be like saying all believers are good people.Ha ha. The hard part is finding out who really is a believer in practice, not just words. Unfortunately many people are like that. (By my usage of believing, i mean believing in God). Another important thing: As a believer in God i think one of the most stupid things possible is to try to convert everyone else. I hate all the bullshit and arrogane of the people who claim to “have the privelage” of knowing God and being chosen and all that crap. Sorry. but it’s bullshit. First of all, who said who have the right to do so? Who said you know the right religion to preach it? Secondly, there’s a saying from the Qu’ran i believe in: this is the translation: “There is no force in religion”. meaning you can’t force anyone to believe in anything. We were given minds to think people, and if we need sb to tell us what’s right, that would undermine our intelligence as capable human beings. I firmly believe that believing or disbelieving in anything will only really be fruitful and longlasting if you experience and come to it yourself. or else you’ll always just copy borrowed ideas without actually believing in them, like hand me down clothes: they’re your but they’re not really yours, get what i’m saying?
    That was just to set the record straight from my own side.

  18. This is excellent. As a cat 3 atheist, I can totally relate. The only thing is, I don’t think I really wish I was wrong so much, because most gods are really awful and I’d hate to have to worship that kind of cruel petty tyrant for all eternity. Other than that I am with you all the way with this post. Thanks very much. Thumbs up!

  19. I notice alot of people miss religion casue it is easier to just believe, and its a source of comfort  . To me tho i would just ask why is easier better .Isnt a fascinating universe around us , and a intresting life thats its are job to figure out (merely casue of the fact that were here ) a hell of a lot more rewarding then easy ?

  20. I am a category 3, also. It seems many people are, telling from the comments, but I don’t seem to meet many others like me. I stumbled upon this page and I’m glad I did.

    The way I was raised, religion was life. Everyone I knew was like my family because I was homeschooled and very sheltered until 6th grade. The more I learned in “real school,” the more I had to revise my faith to try to fit logic. Finally I realized it would never fit, and of course I recognized the superiority of logic and rationality. I have to say that deconversion really is like mourning the death of a loved one. I still sing the songs when I need comfort, just because they remind me of my childhood, not because I believe the content.

    Sometimes I wish I’d taken the blue pill. I’m scared to die, and I also miss the community and this deep sense of oneness with the people around me that I haven’t felt since I left the church. I wish I could have that sense of community with fellow atheists, fellow deconverts.

  21. Cat #3 atheist here I guess. I grew up in a Muslim family but always questioned what my parents believed in.

  22. Apparently, it’s virtually a one-way street. Plenty of people hop the fences between religions, but once they get over the wall and completely out of Delusion City, it seems almost no one goes back. That’d be like “rediscovering Santa Claus” at age thirty.

  23. I’m a category 3. I guess I never really questioned it until about three or four years ago. In the Catholic school system I guess they just push it as much as they can. I went back to my primary school for a graduation ceremony for my younger sister, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of times they mention God – something like 60 times in a 50 minute ceremony. I guess this is why religion is so hard to shake for some of us – it’s just drilled into us from day one.
    Reminds me of Brave New World – “62,400 repetitions make one truth.”

  24. I’m not really in any of those categories – I was sorta brought up by an agnostic dad and I don’t know what my mom was, so I suppose I’d be somewhere between a 1 and a 2. But religion never really played a part in my life. And I find it incredibly stupid.

    I actually know a chick who was atheist, and then converted back to Christianity for some reason. When I asked her why, she said she just felt this sort of “warmth in her heart” – like she knew God was the answer. Anyone have any thoughts about that? I saw someone mention that once people “leave Delusion City, they usually never come back”, so I just posted this here to give an example.

  25. The More You Know... says:

    This is a great topic – and I suspect many people would be surprised by number of category three athiests there are out there.
    I never felt a strong tie to religion, but I frequented a christian church for the better part of my life, that’d be about my first 13 years.
    When I graduated and went to college, I started thinking more actively about my life and what I wanted out of it. Through this, I of course held the internal debate about the illogical paradox that is faith. To add to it, my roommate converted overnight from apathy to christianity and has never looked back. He threw all of the pitches at me, come on down and check it out…yada yada. I couldn’t comprehend how he didn’t see through the irrational notions of faith.
    Then the next year my best friend from high school converted from apathy to hard core devotion to god. He’s still my best friend, and we’re close as hell, but we can never arrive to agreement on the issue. Luckily he doesn’t flair up when I test his faith, he works towards a rational argument in defense, and I’ve got to give him credit for it. He’s yet to convince me though.

    Everyone should discuss religion more actively, apathetic people towards spirituality and metaphysics is what’s holding us back from the next level of humanity.

  26. category #3. i spent months making my decision. when you realize that the reality you’ve known might be entirely false its a bit of a shock. everything i was taught, everything i based my life around was being compromised. but now that ive made my decision and shed those beliefs, i feel like i can live for me. i can be me. i don’t think ive ever been so content with any other decision ive made in my entire life. and after i researched it, and honestly looked at the facts it made so much sense, i don’t know how i could have ever been so blind.

  27. Linus Bern says:

    I like how you have developed a sectarian framework for atheism.  But as a member of the A2, or apathetic sect I take great exception to you suggesting the theists pester us.  That is what we we have come to expect from members of the Dissonant Atheist sect, (who it should be mentioned follow the false path to atheism)

  28. I don’t think I quite fit in any of those three categories. To give my category a title, I think I’d call it “No fertile ground” atheist. The seeds of religion just never managed to take any root in my brain. As far back as I can remember my only reaction to any of the religious stuff was….. complete and utter boredom. The word “God” never had any more meaning to me than annoyance that I was going to have to sit there waiting while the adults did their pointless traditions and recited their meaningless prayers. Sometimes I’d have to read the prayers too – it would have been more interesting and more meaningful to me to read the chemical-ingredient list off a package of Twinkies. My parents even attempted to send me to religious school on the weekends, but THAT didn’t last long. I think I quickly made it clear just how boring and annoying I found it, and they let me quit.

  29. My journey to atheism began when i was young, and without any help.  I started realizing there was something wrong with the dogma i was being fed about 4 th grade, where my teacher told me that the man who created the theory of primordial soup was the devil himself.  After that pieces of my faith started disappearing as my rationality chipped away at it over time.  By the time i was in high school i was fully an atheist.

    This article, for me, helped me remember my internal struggle over this subject, I’m glad it helped me remember that discovering atheism was not an easy path.

  30. I also do not fit into any of the categories. My mother’s family are all atheists, my fathers are heavily christian. My mom is agnostic, my father believed for a while that he was god. I searched for meaning as a kid, and with the support of my mother, I dabbled in (and studied intensely) most of the worlds major religions and some strange and minor ones. Eventually I settled into atheism, both for the logic of it all and because I find solace in our morality and the temporary nature of our existance.
    But I guess that is the nature of lists. They are never all inclusive.

  31. I’m a cat #2, but there is nothing weak or apathetic about my atheism.  My father’s entire family (I have 20 first cousins, so it’s a BIG family) are frothing-at-the-mouth southern Baptists, so I had a lot of pressure from zygote up, but it never REALLY took. I guess I might have believed by default for a while, not knowing that non-belief was an option. 

    But believe me, there is no argument strong enough to convince me to abandon reason for nonsense.

    Category #2’s are not all wishy-washy fence-sitters.

  32. DeafAtheist says:

    After reading this I wonder what category the likes of people such as C. S. Lewis, and Lee Strobel who claim to have been former atheists turned theists and how the could have abandoned reson and logic for superstitious belief?

    What makes an atheist abandon logic for faith? What makes them decide that superstition is more intellectually palatable than common sense? How strongly did they feel about their position before (re)converting? Were they wishy-washy about it or were their convictions strong?

  33. I’d say I’m a category #1, and thankfully the only experience of belief I have is from when I was about six years old, and my mother told me about how in medieval times pretty much everyone in Britain was Christian. I then misunderstood her words horribly and spent about a year thinking that it was illegal to not believe in god. What really annoys me is now when christians profess to know my exact thoughts and feelings on belief.

    Surely, when such a tiny amount of (probably circumstantial) evidence supports superstitious belief, it’s only natural not to believe?

  34. My usual response to an atheist is “Ah” and that’s about it, unless they want to have a conversation. For most atheists of cat 3 especially, I find that conversation to be very similar in style to a conversation I would have with a hyper-religious person. They start in on  my beliefs, my intelligence level (an immediate violation of logic which they claim to have mastered better than anyone else) which usually winds up with a withering counterattack on their own hypocrisy. You see, the irony is that militant (or dissonant as you call them) atheists frequently vigorously and loudly confess to detesting dogma, proselytizing, judgmentalism, etc, and claim theists (Christians in particular) are the most guilty of these things (not saying the many Christians, in particular, are not guilty of that, b/c many are). They then proceed to do the very same thing of which they complain.  Atheists can be just as dogmatic as anyone else. Fine, you don’t believe in God. Why do you care so much that I do?  (Not throwing those out in this forum, really, but that’s something that sometimes comes up.)

    Furthermore, when you get into the arena of trying to legislate against religion or religious activity or in some way influence the public arena of ideas, you are now just as guilty as any theist who is trying to do the same thing (aka, the “Christian Right” or Muslims with Sharia law, etc).  It’s hard to profess hating the above things, and then trying to frame things in such a way to show one isn’t doing that.  Like most religions (Democrat, Republican, Christian, Muslim, Atheist) these types of articles usually are just preaching to the choir; facts are irrelevant.

    The good conversations are always quite amazing. My usual experience (and what I read above) is the vast majority is a reaction against perceived mistreatment in a church (mostly) and very little understanding of what I believe.  When cordial and polite, those kinds of conversations are stimulating and enjoyable.  I don’t really participate in throwing fireballs (e.g. “You’re going to burn!! countered by the atheist “You’re an idiot!!”).

  35. Bravo. Superb piece. I’ve only adopted the atheist label within the last couple of years and am solidly in category #3 — ONLY after childhood in a Baptist church and 20+ adult years of searching & researching all manner of religions. It’s been a “soul” searching journey and intellectual pursuit that hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned about life — and how much more I’ve come to appreciate this one & only life — for an infinity of gods and heavens (or hells).

  36. What the?  Who the?  What type of link is that?

  37. Bookwrm87 says:

    I’d probably fit easiest into cat#2, but I will never be converted because I don’t care one way or the other. Religion never appealed to me, and so by default, I was an atheist.

  38. As an atheists since I as 13, I have heard it all in such tedious repetition that I quickly become disgusted with the irrational and silly arguments of all theists. They like to tell atheists to “Just shut up” So I say to them, “Stop insulting my intelligence and start using some of your own.” Yes, that’s a bit rude, but so are they.

    Religion has been getting a free pass to everything for far to long. It’s long past time to start taxing them like any other business and start demanding that they take responsibility for their behavior. That means showing some respect for others and keeping their abhorrent beliefs to themselves instead of constantly enacting them into laws for everyone.

  39. I think the “wishing we were wrong” thing is much less common than you make it sound. I’ve never wished it, and I find it quite rare among cat 1 and 3 atheists, and as you stated, cat 2 just doesn’t give a shit. Hitchens and Dawkins don’t wish for it, and often state how great a thing it is that it is not true. I don’t recall Harris ever giving me the impression that he wished for it, Julia Sweeney speaks of a brief period of depression coinciding with her deconversion, but it passed. I think the more you learn about religion, the less you wish for it to be true.

  40. i was number 2 my family wasn’t that religious but i studied the fuck out of it first so #2 & 3 but when i came out to my family all of a sudden it was a big deal and they were asking arguments that aren’t even related to the subject whatsoever

  41. I did like ur categorization. Of course, as with any other categorization, soon people notice the gaps and tend to broad the criteria (even suggest a few more categories, as one can see from the comments). That’s only natural but, in the end, you may find that some are just sub-categories. Anyway, there’s one thing I think your categories lack: The inclusion criteria are to much focused on external factors, rather than internal ones – since we are refering to atheism, an explicit “internal” stance, it would be much more proficuous to focus on that. You don’t even need to change that much – all that you refer to as external factors (parents, shool, friends, whatever) just needs to be seen from a phenomenological point of view – it doesn’t matter that much if your parents are catholic or atheists, if none of that is “internalized” in your mind. For instance, the fact that your parents are atheists doesn’t mean necessarily that, when it comes to faith, they represent a model on the issue. Due to a friend or some other relative, one can find that he fits best to #3. By making the categories more internal-focused, one can avoid a certain deterministic sense in purelly contextual factors and turn to the more important stuff – why did this person, from a subjective (as in relative to the “subject”) perspective became an atheist? Also (and I’m still trying to make my mind on this: indeed the path to atheism seems to be a one way road; however, it’s also true that one tends to rethink the issue once in a while), there’s no reason to picture the categories as static – I could point some moments in my life when I felt more like one category than another and vice-versa (not as in becoming an atheist, but as an atheist going over what drove me to that and reinterpreting some life events) – Once again, that depends only on some kind of internal conflict, independent of its source (maybe I had an interesting conversation or read something) which, moreover, happens to be dynamic.
    Anyway, I do recognize that all this is secundary to your discussion since the main point was how believers approach you and how easilly they do that with some kind pre-assumptions. Kudos for that! 😉


    Sorry for the double post, but it only tells how much appealing, in a food-for-thought way, your text is! 😉
    I’m thinking that, even more, your categories imply, even if only implicitly, both an internal state of affairs as well as a general external attitude towards an argument. Incidentally, they don’t need to coincide: My guess is that a #2 atheist can argument as a #3 one (or any other combination for that matter). Here, as well as with any other kind of discussion, the determinant happens to be your own interlocutor.
    Anyway, just kind of thinking aloud here 😛

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